My search for the cheapest carry-on

Even bargain hunters sometimes find they’re wasting money – me included.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I have been checking my bag every time I take a weekend plane trip.

It was originally not a question of money but of convenience. It seems the TSA guidelines change so frequently that you have to review them almost every time you fly. I’ve had three pairs of “dangerous” hygiene scissors confiscated in the past, but now they’re permitted in a carry-on. Plus, I don’t keep on hand those travel-size bottles of shampoo that meet the 3 oz. regulations for carry-on.

This week, however, I ran the numbers. Delta charges $46 round-trip to check a bag online, $50 at the airport. That means a $200 carry-on, as expensive as it seems, will pay off in about four trips. And I can keep a pack of ready-to-go, travel-sized products to throw in.

Thus began my search for the carry-ons with the best value. No matter how much or how little you travel, there’s a bag for you that’s a steal.

The infrequent flier

The absolute cheapest rolling bag I could find was the Personalized Rolling Pilot Case from Walmart for $28.74. Intended to be a substitute for a bookbag, this option is not for serious travelers. But it does have a retractable handle, wheels, and will fit into overhead compartments. If you only fly one to two times a year, this overnighter, complete with a 60-day warranty, could do the job.

The occasional explorer

Samsonite luggage is known for dependability, and the prices are a bargain for someone who travels every two months or more. A Samsonite Aspire GRT carry-on will only run you $89.99 on sale from For $107.99 you’ll get the same model with spinner wheels for better maneuverability. If you choose Samsonite, buy directly from its website. You’ll get the best base prices; plus they run great sales.

The veteran jet setter

If you’re a seasoned traveler who flies once a month or more, you have to go with Briggs & Riley. This company guarantees its luggage for life – even if it’s damaged by the airline. The site offers free shipping for orders over $99, but value is the name of the game. A Briggs & Riley carry-on will cost between $209.25 for the 19” International Upright to $449 for the 20” Carry On Business Upright. The bottom line: you won’t have to buy luggage ever again.

How much would you pay for a carry-on? Do you have a piece of luggage that has held up over frequent traveling?

– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter


Follow me on Facebook | Twitter | Email

16 comments Add your comment


May 31st, 2011
10:08 am

I can get a nice Samsonite carry-on with spinner wheels for around $50 at Ross, Marshalls, or T.J Maxx. They also have other brands for less.


May 31st, 2011
10:38 am

Don’t go cheap, you will pay for it later! Try Magellans – . They have great travel items at good prices.


May 31st, 2011
10:40 am

Former flight attendant, love Briggs and Riley and never had a issue with honoring the lifetime guarantee. I now own Tumi carry-on; more sturdy with sleeker lines (no lifetime guarantee) and very happy as well. Yes, the initial expense is a bit of a sacrifice, but even for the infrequent traveler, the purchase price is worth the investment considering the bags’ durability.


May 31st, 2011
11:08 am

If the only reason you’re carrying on is to avoid the fee, then get the Delta Gold Amex card and you won’t have to pay to check your first bag. You can bring a larger bag, and don’t have to fight for space in the overhead. Plus, you earn skymiles on the purchases made with the card.

That said, I usually do just take a carry on because I don’t like to wait for luggage once I reach my final destination and don’t like to risk losing my luggage.


May 31st, 2011
11:49 am

Lauren, I know what you mean about the TSA rules and it’s easy to forget about something that may be considered prohibited. I always try to do a carry-on for short trips to save money. I have a cheap hand-me-down Samsonite that works well for me and it’s just the right size for overhead compartments. The one thing I recommend is make sure the carry-on you purchase does not exceed 45 inches (length+width+height). Plus be sure not to over stuff your bag. Too many times I’ve witnessed some poor soul trying to shove an over sized bag into an overhead compartment and struggle to find a place for it to fit while people are lining up to get by. Eventually they have to find a suitable spot somewhere towards the back of the plane eight rows down from his/her seat and when the plane lands they have to swim upstream to try and retrieve their bag which again causes an inconvenience for everyone. Another tip is, depending on the airplane, overhead compartments are slightly deeper over 3-seat rows as opposed to 2-seat rows. Also, if your bag looks like it’s hanging out too far please do a quick test to see if the compartment lid closes because it keeps the flight crew from having to adjust it for you. Try turning the bag with the wheels out if it doesn’t fit and don’t throw your bag in sideways if you can help it because it wastes space. Otherwise, checked bags are a great convenience…if you can afford it!

Lauren Davidson

May 31st, 2011
11:49 am

@scooby: Great points! I, too, have witnessed the overstuffed carry-on/inexperienced traveler causing backups…


May 31st, 2011
11:51 am

I agree with Jennifer. I don’t like to wait for luggage either. The Gold Amex is a great deal until you have to pay that $90 annual fee. If you can do first class your checked luggage is free with Delta. I love first class, but I wouldn’t pay for it unless I was flying a long distance like Australia.

Just Back

May 31st, 2011
12:56 pm

Agree with Leslie, TJMaxx or Marshall have the best deals for suitcases. Just bought a Nautica one for $50. Case has nice pockets and a great expander. The trick is to carry on your case and take a large shoulder bag that looks like a purse. Ladies, carry a small around the shoulder bag that you can stuff in your large bag when boarding so to meet the requirements. The large bag keeps my toiletries, shoes and odds. Clothes go in the case. We just did a 10 day trip to the West Coast with a carry on each and 1 large shoulder bag. You can always do laundry at some point in your trip. Having to wait on my bag is a waste of time and energy as all I want to do when I land is get out of the airport. You will enjoy your trip better with less luggage to keep up with.


May 31st, 2011
12:57 pm

Love my Samsonite that I got from Marshall’s several years ago for about $60. I don’t fly that frequently but it has held up very nicely for the price.


May 31st, 2011
1:15 pm

Sams has a great 4 piece samosite set with a huge spinner, carry on, overnight bag and rolling duffle, for $100. Have made 5 trips since June of last yeear using them, checked and carry on with no issues. Great set of luggage! One piece of advice, don’t buy red because you think you will stand out on the luggage carousel! There is more red than any other color out there.


May 31st, 2011
1:34 pm

Get an American Express-Delta credit card, and the first bag checked-in is free


May 31st, 2011
2:55 pm

Lately, you may be better off on a non Delta airline even discounting free bags and mileage. E.g. I flew to Costa Rica on US AIR for $500 vs Delta for $740.


May 31st, 2011
3:18 pm

It’s a hard sale to make to Americans, but, in my (and travel guru Rick Steves’s) opinion, a travel backpack is a better option than a wheeled bag. A carry on bag is not that heavy, and really not much of a burden for almost all travelers, even with Hartsfield-Jackson’s long concourses. And so much lighter than the wheeled cases. And no wheels to stick in overhead bins. Steves’s backpack option is a great one at $99-maybe on sale for $79 still. I prefer the Osprey Porter 46, available at REI and other places for $99.


May 31st, 2011
3:21 pm

If you are visiting family or friends, Fedex much of your clothing in advance.


June 1st, 2011
7:51 am

As a traveler for work 2-5 trips a month., I never check luggage, but could use a newer carry-on. I recommend the little 3oz bottles from walmart so that way you still get to use your fave shampoo. The Delta card has an annual fee and nasty interest rate, so be careful buying their marketing. You’d be amazed what all fits in a carry-on, just pack smart.


June 1st, 2011
9:42 am

I have picked up some great carry-on bags at Goodwill, and garage sales. Once I even found a 5pc luggage set at Office Depot marked down to $10! It included two rolling carry-ons. Yes, they are cheap, but at that price, if they lasted only one trip, I’d have gotten my money’s worth
Recently I started using old contact lens cases to store small quantities of things like my topical prescriptions, moisturizer, facial cleanser, toothpaste, etc… It gives me more room for shampoo, hairspray. The containers seal tightly and I can fit several in my quart sized bag along with my 3 oz items.